Bengaluru: The production-centric intensive agriculture brought about by India's Green Revolution in the 1960s, using high-yielding seeds, fertilisers and high levels of groundwater utilisation, helped India achieve food self-sufficiency by the 1970s, but has created a crisis of depletion of soil health, groundwater, and other natural resources, said P.S. Vijayshankar, an expert on sustainable farming and water resource management. What India needs now is an ecosystem-centric approach to agriculture, which understands that agricultural production draws resources from the ecosystem, and that there are limits to these resources, Vijayshankar told us in an interview about the impacts of industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture policy and the imperative of sustainable natural resource management.

While the Union government has announced policies and schemes to promote a transition to non-chemical farming, its decision in October 2022 to grant approval for herbicide-tolerant, genetically-modified mustard (GM Mustard) for commercial use reveals confusion in the government's approach to agriculture, said Vijayshankar. As India attempts to bring about a paradigm shift to chemical-free and sustainable agricultural practices, lessons should be drawn from the coherent approach of the Green Revolution, by ensuring adequate research, administrative and financial support for natural farming, said Vijayshankar. India's transition should also be well calibrated, learning from the recent crisis in Sri Lanka, as the abrupt withdrawal of chemical fertilisers can adversely impact yield, and thus farmer's income, he said.

Vijayshankar has lived and worked among Adivasi communities for over 30 years, and is co-founder of Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS), a civil society organisation that works on water, sustainable agriculture and livelihoods in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. He was a member of multiple government expert groups, including for the Ministry of Rural Development's Integrated Watershed Management Programme (2009-14) and the Expert Group for the formulation of Madhya Pradesh's State Water Policy (2019). He is also a founding director of Nature Positive Farming and Wholesome Foods Foundation (N+3F), a Bengaluru-based non-profit which promotes sustainable agriculture.

Edited excerpts:

You have written about building farm resilience to manage the climate vulnerability of agriculture, and the need for India to move from the production-centric approach of the Green Revolution, to an ecosystem-centric view of agriculture. Could you elaborate?

A few decades before Independence, the rate of growth of agriculture was low. At the time of Independence, core food producing areas in the west were lost [due to Partition] and food security became a primary concern. In the early 1940s, there was a famine in Bengal. [Due to this], India began a production-centric approach with a focus on food security.

Big dams were constructed and the net sown area increased from 118 million acres [in 1950] to 140 million in 1970, and has stagnated since. Between 1950 and 1960, India's food production increased substantially, by over 30%. But subsequent events in the mid-1960s--two consecutive wars and back-to-back droughts--led to the Green Revolution, which proposed to raise food production and provide food security. It introduced intensive agriculture where more inputs (water, pesticides, high yield seeds) were used to increase yield per unit of land. It apparently became a success within a decade, as India attained self-sufficiency in food [by the 1970s] and food import was stopped. However, this did not provide nutritional security in the country as pervasive undernutrition is prevalent even today.

Production-centric agriculture has created a crisis that impacts soil, groundwater, and natural resources. Soil degradation and depletion of soil health has become a problem. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have also contributed to soil degradation. Now we need to develop an ecosystem-centric approach. The production-centric approach lacks an understanding of the ecosystem. In the ecosystem-centric approach, the production system is seen as a subset of an ecosystem, which draws resources from the ecosystem. It uses the ecosystem as a source of raw material and also dumps waste into it. Any ecosystem has limits and a production-centric view does not recognise this.

The need for a different perspective has been around for nearly half a century, but now there is more recognition of the crisis as stakeholders talk about agroecology.

There have been state-led initiatives in India which attempted to consider agroecology and find alternatives. But institutionally, in terms of access to inputs, markets and other interlinkages in agriculture, much of India's infrastructure is built to carry forward the Green Revolution paradigm and support industrial agriculture. Is it then possible to abandon a production-centric approach in favour of an improved, sustainable form?

The transition will be slow. The Green Revolution was a success on its own terms since it met its objectives of achieving food self-sufficiency and reducing imports. Due to its success, the paradigm is institutionally entrenched and breaking it becomes difficult. All sustainable agriculture initiatives in the last three decades, including organic or natural farming, System of Rice Intensification (SRI), conservation agriculture or Non Pesticide Management (NPM), have received only limited policy support. They have not been scaled up. Their coverage will not be more than 5% of the gross cropped area.

There are institutional constraints because the agricultural research establishment in India is completely oriented towards a production-centric approach. Efforts like natural farming, NPM and other sustainable agriculture methods need research support and support for innovations to be scaled up.

Your organisation SPS has been working on NPM to encourage sustainable agriculture. What has this entailed and how has this progressed?

NPM is a low-cost option for agriculture. Farmers and the government understand the cost aspect of NPM and its reliance on locally available inputs. But agriculture is dynamic and there are new problems that crop up. While being low cost, NPM is also labour-intensive. In a village economy facing labour scarcity, implementing NPM methods has challenges.

There is an acute labour shortage in rural areas. People are not keen to do farm labour. Many people migrate for work, or work on their own small farms. Without support, it is not easy to urge people to move to labour-intensive sustainable agriculture. Innovations like Bio-input Resource Centres, which make organic inputs easily available in the villages, should get popularised. The farmers who work with SPS understand the cost element and are subsistence farmers [who grow food for their own consumption]. But they still need such innovative approaches to stay on their path of sustainable development.

There have been initiatives by various state governments and the Union government to encourage organic and natural farming practices. But an environment ministry committee has recently cleared herbicide-tolerant GM Mustard seeds for commercial introduction, although the Supreme Court is currently hearing petitions against the release of the seeds. Is the GM Mustard decision and the government's support for non-chemical farming divergent?

While pesticides are a problem, herbicides are an even bigger challenge. Labour shortage fosters [its use] because removing weeds is a labour-intensive activity. Herbicides are as harmful as pesticides. The recent controversy about GM Mustard shows that the new variety that has been approved is a herbicide-tolerant variety. The use of such varieties will lead to more intensive use of herbicides, which are already a growing menace.

The government's actions reveal a lot of confusion about its approach to agriculture. They have come out with the National Mission for Natural Farming programme, backed by substantial investments, allocating around Rs 1,500 crore for this natural farming mission. While this is being done, the subsidy on chemical fertilisers continues to grow. It is expected to be around Rs 2.5 lakh crore [$30.3 billion] this year, according to news reports. As I said earlier, intensive use of chemical fertilisers is one of the important reasons for soil degradation and depletion of soil organic carbon. So the goals of these programmes are obviously in conflict.

Based on your experience and experiments with NPM, what inputs does the government seek from you? How does the government think about policy around sustainability?

The government recognises the need to promote low-cost methods. But there is not enough budgetary support for this. The farmers' income support scheme (PM-KISAN; Rs 68,000 crore allocated in 2022-23) that provides Rs 6,000 annually is immensely popular, but it has eroded the agriculture department budget available for other programmes and schemes.

The investment (of Rs 1,500 crore) made for natural farming is a step in the right direction. Some states, for instance Odisha through its Millet Mission promotes alternative [non paddy-wheat] farming, although it may not be about natural farming. State-level initiatives in agriculture are now very significant and there are a number of lessons to be learnt from them.

A paradigm shift is a multi-layered process. Investment is necessary, but there are other factors. Market incentives and public procurement play an important role. Punjab had rainfed cultivation before the colonial British government started growing paddy in an agro-climatically unsuitable region by constructing canals. The high MSP [Minimum Support Price] encourages paddy cultivation. Now, if paddy cultivation is to be relocated to the eastern region of India, a change in support prices and procurement is needed. The system of incentives and subsidies to producers can play a big role in shifting the cropping patterns into ecologically suitable pathways. But today, these are playing a negative role, which needs to be corrected.

Then, we require proper research support and technology for crop management and soil improvement. A systematic body of knowledge does not exist. Market linkages are another challenge. In a mandi [agriculture produce market], there is no differentiation between low cost, non-pesticide produce or produce grown using chemicals. There is no value addition for farmers and they are not convinced by the low cost argument. They will need more tangible incentives.

Organic produce, though niche, has a strong market. In the Green Revolution experience, there are three aspects that worked in its expansion. The effort was consistent; it was targeted for specific areas (it started as Intensive Agriculture Development Programme); it was a multipronged and packaged approach which included seeds, research, marketing, fertilisers etc.

We have to derive from these lessons to focus on areas where the environmental crisis is most severe. This means crop diversification, investing in soil, research and locally appropriate seeds and, most importantly, agricultural extension systems [by which technical advice is provided to farmers about schemes, services, inputs, etc]. It is also very important to note that the progress of the Green Revolution can be attributed to a large extent to a publicly-funded extension system with village level workers (Gram Sewaks). This has become nearly dysfunctional now. We need to revive it.

In an interview this October, ecologist Debal Deb had said that localisation was important for agroecology, and that when a farmer adopts agroecology, it becomes sustainable. What does localisation mean for medium to large farmers who will want to take produce to market? How does it align with the existing production-centric systems of farming?

The localisation that Deb ji talked about is to use locally available or locally appropriate resources that considers the limits of the local ecosystem. He also talks about farmers being in control of the seeds that they grow. There could be a semi-autarchic system where people produce and consume their own food. There is no need for a market, certification or proof of concept. These types of vibrant local food systems are in existence, though we need to see how widespread they are. But they should not be confused with what is called 'default organic' farmers. There are regions where chemical agriculture has not reached. But much of that may not be a matter of choice. The communities may be poor and not have the resources. Localised agriculture may be happening here, but for how long can they be insulated from industrial agriculture is a real question.

We can explore non-market channels through local food systems that directly connect the consumers to producers. In the SPS area, for example, there are farmers who grow wheat for their own consumption and have a small surplus. These farmers are part of our large network of self-help groups (SHGs), which includes groups who are by and large consumers or net buyers of food. Hence, we can have a system of farmer-to-consumer exchange supported by an organisation through the SHG network in a local area. This does not involve a formal market and prices.

In Andhra Pradesh's case, natural farming produce is being sold to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. It is a big and dedicated market. Similarly, there are direct to consumer linkages and fairs outside the mandi system. All this requires effort and dedicated resources to scale up.

These are some ways of visualising localisation with agroecology. I would like to emphasise that there is nothing in an agroecological approach that is intrinsically opposed to markets. In fact, I believe market incentives have a big role in taking agroecology forward.

India's groundwater is a lifeline for agriculture. The country is the largest user of groundwater in the world and groundwater depletion is a major concern. Groundwater extraction in India in 2022, however, was the lowest since 2004, at 60%, according to Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) data. A new assessment methodology was introduced by CGWB in 2017. How do you assess the recent reduction in groundwater extraction?

One of the focuses of the ecosystem-centric approach is to manage water resources. But there are issues with the CGWB assessment of groundwater balance. They follow the process of monitoring wells pre- and post-monsoon, and extraction is assessed separately.

The number of samples of wells monitored by CGWB is small. This may not give a true and representative picture of a country like India, with over 30 million groundwater structures. In a large block, sampling a few wells will not accurately represent regions where groundwater levels are critical or overexploited. So, the 60% groundwater extraction data may be an underestimate.

Secondly, pre- and post-monsoon samples are taken from open wells. The report does not clearly inform if the water from deeper aquifers [water-bearing rock formations] from where borewells source water are sampled. In places like Punjab, where there is high groundwater extraction, open wells do not exist. They are mostly borewells that are medium or deep. This means that if the deeper aquifers are not sampled and only water from shallow ones are checked, the data are bound to be wrong.

Though the CGWB reports mention aquifers, they are often looked at on a regional scale, covering a large area. In places like hard rock areas, the aquifers are local and the scale of mapping will not be commensurate with the scale at which action is to be done. The CGWB's NAQUIM (aquifer mapping project) is a great step in the right direction. However, NAQUIM is not currently informing CGWB's methodology of groundwater balance assessment. Moreover, I feel we must include the perceptions of local communities about the resource in these local assessments of groundwater balance.

The report categorises units as over-exploited, critical, semi-critical, safe and saline. Water quality, in addition to salinity, has problems like presence of fluoride and arsenic which are not considered.

Of the 239 billion cubic metres of groundwater extracted in 2022, as of November 11, 87% is for irrigation. Punjab and Haryana, where farmers have better access to MSP for some crops and have seen the benefits and drawbacks of the Green Revolution, along with Rajasthan, are found to have more than 100% groundwater extraction. Both states may find a change to organic or natural farming difficult. How can the government operationalise a definitive water management policy in agriculture as it plans to support more sustainable methods like organic or natural farming?

Water is a naturally occurring substance in an ecosystem. It is limited in supply. It can undergo qualitative degradation. We must make rational use of water. Punjab was a dry land until the British made public investments in canals and dams. The agroecology does not permit certain types of crops like paddy in that ecosystem.

For decades, there have been discussions about the need to move away from monoculture to diversified cropping systems. Punjab used to grow pulses and cotton. Farmers have been pushed into growing wheat and rice, and supplying to the public procurement system. This has had a negative impact on the groundwater. But the procurement and MSP system is now so entrenched that policy pronouncements have largely remained on paper.

Over the years, the Punjab government has issued notifications and passed laws on postponing paddy transplantation in summer [to ensure that the paddy crop is rain-fed in the monsoon season, and not groundwater-fed]. It has had limited success.

The production-centric view is supported by the procurement process. Paddy and wheat must be given less support in Punjab and other crops must be provided more. But abruptly stopping support can have issues. It must be done in a phased manner so that the eastern belt in India (West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand), where it is more conducive to grow paddy, is encouraged.

The Ukraine-Russia war has led to a global rise in fertiliser prices and the government has approved nearly Rs 52,000 crore as fertiliser subsidy for the winter cropping season. At the same time, the abrupt implementation of the organic farming policy in Sri Lanka, which was undergoing a difficult period economically, resulted in farmer pushback. Against this global backdrop of rising fertiliser prices, Sri Lanka's failed organic farming policy implementation and the repeal of farm laws in India in 2021, how would you look at a pivot away from chemicals-led industrial agriculture to more sustainable agriculture? Can this impact yield and food security?

Non-chemical farming is considered less yielding compared to conventional chemical farming. But there have been reports, like that by the [New Delhi-based research organisation] Centre for Science and Environment, that have contested this claim. Any crop requires a certain amount of nutrients. If chemical fertilisers are suddenly withdrawn, without other ways of adequately supplying nutrients to the plants, then yield will be impacted. Something similar seems to have happened in Sri Lanka, when the move to organic became abrupt.

The transition has to be calibrated and orchestrated well. The option must be given to farmers so that they can provide inputs in an ecologically appropriate way so that yield is not reduced. We need to understand that the soil in many parts of India is depleted in terms of organic matter. Unless we renourish our soil, completely moving away from fertilisers will be difficult. The NPM approach focuses on eliminating chemical pesticides but it also talks about building up soil health and diversifying the cropping system. As we work to improve soil, we will have to judiciously use fertilisers, and stop using pesticides. That's the approach that SPS has followed. The transition will be slow but it is being done by farmers who have stopped chemical inputs.

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